"Bowling for Columbine," the latest from "Roger and Me" creator Michael
Moore, is one of the best movies of the year. The ramshackle documentary
is powerful, disturbing, funny, thought provoking, moving and
infuriating. To get the most from the experience, you will need to
remind yourself of one crucial fact.
Michael Moore is full of shit. Just as full of it as some of those he
Sure, he's lovable and cuddly, looking a lot like a worn teddy bear as
he shuffles around. He wants to make the world a better place,
especially for those who often do without. But while trying to be
champion to the downtrodden, Moore shows little regard for disciplined
arguments or ethical journalism. He dismisses ideas without giving them
a fair examination, plays fast and loose with facts and presents
questionable conclusions as if they were gospel. He works the camera
like a stripper works a pole, mugging for the lens while editing
oh-so-carefully to make his targets look like fools or monsters. And he
still ambushes subjects with his film crew - an almost always
unproductive attention-getting technique employed by tabloid shows and
hack local TV reporters.
As long as you remember what Moore does wrong, you will be able to
appreciate what, intentionally or not, "Bowling for Columbine" does
Moore starts his examination of guns and America by visiting Littleton,
Colo., where two teenage Columbine High School youths horrified the
nation when they went on a campus shooting-spree. He visits an early
morning bowling class (class?) like the one the boys attended at the
beginning of their last day on Earth, asking the expected questions from
Moore is taken with the fact that the Columbine shootings occurred on
the same day as the heaviest United States bombing of the Kosovo war,
visiting the coincidence more than once and treating it as if was
significant. "I guess I don't see that connection," says a spokesman for
a Lockheed Martin missile plant, as I nodded my head in agreement.
Columbine is ever present in the film. One of the most affecting moments
is when Moore's camera edges close to a glib Littleton-area real estate
man obviously designated as the doofus du jour. That is, until Moore
asks about the shootings and the man breaks into tears, still so
traumatized by the horror that he cannot even say the word "Columbine."
The bullets used by the shooters were purchased from Kmart and, later in
the film, Moore takes two Columbine survivors to Kmart headquarters,
showing their mangled torsos during an ambush confrontation. Despite the
cheap tactics, the scene is moving - even more so when we see the
surprising corporate response.
In both instances, Moore's standard morality plays are derailed when his
subjects react like people instead of puppets. The why of Columbine
remains elusive, but its impact is clear.
The specific questions of the Colorado shootings lead to the meat of the
movie. As Moore pokes and prods, a bigger picture begins to form. Many
countries are as well armed as America. Many countries have histories as
bloody, or bloodier, than ours. But our murder rate is higher, wildly
higher, than any other nation.
So what's up with us? Are we that afraid or angry? Are we that crazy?
Michael Moore documentaries tend to meander as he raising lots of
questions while searching for memorable footage. "Bowling for Columbine"
follows that pattern, but it proves an asset in this instance because it
prevents Moore from racing to judgment (he speed-walks instead) while
allowing us time to consider the issues and examine how the documentary
This one punctuates interviews and stories with comically placed
archival footage, a propaganda cartoon and a creepy timeline. To the
blissful strains of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," we see a
timeline from the '50s to the present noting when the U.S. trained
various men who would later become enemies, when the U.S. removed
democratically elected leaders, and so forth. The list is fascinating
and awful, although the conclusion drawn in the explosively worded final
fact is questionable, to say the least.
Field trips include a disquieting visit with tofu farmer James Nichols,
whose brother Terry helped Timothy McVeigh plan the Oklahoma City
bombing, and a look at the nightmarish shooting of a 6-year-old Flint,
Michigan girl by a 6-year-old boy.
A particularly interesting moment comes during an interview with Marilyn
Manson, a popular target of conservatives for his freak show look and
gallows rock. His patter sounds overly rehearsed, until Moore asks what
he would say to Columbine kids if he had the chance. "Nothing," Manson
responds, "I'd just listen to what they had to say."
The film concludes with Moore using his NRA card to secure an interview
with Hollywood icon and long-time NRA spokesman Charlton Heston. Moore
starts off fine with small talk about his history as a hunter, then asks
why the NRA insisted on appearing in nearby Denver shortly after the
Columbine killings and in Flint shortly after the death of the little
girl. Fair enough, but then he begins badgering the old man with a
series of questions raised during the filming of the documentary. Had
Moore said, "I'm at a loss to answer these questions myself, but I'd
like to hear your thoughts," a discussion could have ensued. Instead,
Moore hammers on and on until Heston finally gets up and walks away.
Moore follows him, waving a photo of the 6-year-old girl and pleading
with Heston to "Look at her. Just look at her face!"
Wow. Such pain, such drama, such self-serving bullshit. What a stunning
performance. Don't worry, Michael, you're still big, it's the PICTURES
that got small.
"Bowling for Columbine" provides a deeply flawed, but riveting look at
our deeply flawed national mindset. Michael Moore has made his case,
mixing truth, half-truths, melodrama and manipulative bullshit in a
fashion that would make our government leaders proud. God bless America.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott